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Lo, a shadow of horror is risen: William Blake and the Horror Tradition

Lo, a shadow of horror is risen

William Blake and the Horror Tradition

words by Michael Sellars

I doubt there’s anyone unfamiliar with this particular verse. And although it contains references to ‘forests of the night’, ‘fearful symmetry’ and ‘deadly terrors’, it’s unlikely there’s many who would place it firmly in the horror tradition. I would. Furthermore, I would venture that it contains the ultimate horror (more of which later) and that its author, William Blake, has one foot planted solidly in the horror genre.

Before we go into Blake’s horror credentials, let’s take a very brief look at Blake himself.

William Blake was born in 1757, the son of a hosier. From as early as the age of four, he was experiencing ‘visions’: God peering in through a window, angels roosting in a tree. Aged ten he was sent to drawing school to pursue his passion for art, and he was writing poetry at twelve. At the age of fourteen, Blake was apprenticed to an engraver and, seven years later, he studied for a short time at the Royal Academy. Despite these glancing blows from formal education, Blake was essentially an autodidact and pursued a unique trajectory, blending the literary and visual arts with his ‘illuminated manuscripts’, and forging a philosophy entirely his own, if initially informed by strands of radical Christianity such as Swedenborgianism. If you want to find out more about the man, I heartily recommend Blake by Peter Ackroyd. To explore his work, ideas and vision, Northrop Fry’s Fearful Symmetry is an excellent place to begin.

So, let’s take a look at those horror credentials, the ‘meat and potatoes’ as it were. Here’s a little taster from Vala, or The Four Zoas:

Skull riven into filaments? Eyes transformed into sea jellies which beget little, mocking monsters? Blimey. Enough horror for you?

Here’s another extract, this time from The Book of Urizen:

And one more. From Tiriel:

The king of rotten wood? An eyeless man? Stuff of nightmares.

Blake’s poetry is littered with demons, monsters, spectres, brutal deities, abominable voids, soul-shudd’ring vacuums and more dark powers than you can shake a stick at. Not to mention the sorts of hideous transformations that would pique the interest of David Cronenberg. In fact, using a ‘six degrees of separation’ approach, it’s not difficult to trace your way from Blake’s English workshop to Cronenberg’s Canadian doorstep. Blake was a huge influence on the Beat Generation, which included William Burroughs. Patti Smith, herself a huge admirer of Blake, said, “William Burroughs and I used to talk about this. Burroughs was fond of Blake, and it was just so simple to him. He said that Blake just saw what others did not.” Burroughs’ Naked Lunch was adapted for the screen in 1991 by none other than horror maestro David Cronenberg. From Blake to Cronenberg in just three steps.

But there are more explicit thematic connections between Blake and the horror genre. Blake was an artist in the mythopoeic tradition. It’s arguable that he was the original mythopoeic artist or, at the very least, one of its earliest exponents. Mythopoesis is the act of creating mythologies, as distinct from fantasy world-building. Mythopoeic authors include J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Mervyn Peake and Lord Dunsany, himself an influence on Clark Ashton Smith and, of course, H.P. Lovecraft. Dunsany gave us Pegāna, Yoharneth-Lahai, and Hoodrazai. Smith created Zothique, Yululun, Thasaidon. Lovecraft’s inventions need no introduction: Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth and the ubiquitous Cthulhu. Blake conjures up Urizen, Orc, Los, Rintrah, Ahania, Enitharmon, Tharmas, Beulah and Oothoon.

There is no evidence that Blake was a direct influence on Lovecraft (although The Haunter of the Dark features a Robert Blake – a fictional version of his friend Robert Bloch) but there are thematic connections. In his 1920 short story From Beyond, adapted for the screen by Stuart Gordon 66 years later, Lovecraft explores the notion of “a reality beyond that revealed to us by the senses, or that which we experience in everyday life”, an idea he returned to in The Shunned House (1924), The Colour Out of Space (1927) and The Dreams in the Witch House (1932). Here’s mad scientist Crawford Tillinghast in From Beyond:

We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with a wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have.

This notion, or something remarkably similar, is at the heart of Blake’s work. He believed our failing is to see with our senses rather than through them. From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite.

For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern

Blake believed that the Imagination offered the means by which we could see through our senses, rather than with and experience infinity. In From Beyond Lovecraft’s Tillinghast takes the far simpler and more obvious approach of building a machine that stimulates the pineal gland thus “waking a thousand sleeping senses”. Both perfectly valid approaches.

Although it’s debatable whether Lovecraft was directly influenced by Blake, it’s a fact that Lovecraft’s work was described as “one of the cornerstones of modern horror” by someone who was directly influenced by Blake: Clive Barker.

In an interview with Lucy A. Snyder in 2009, Barker said, “On my door I have a quote from William Blake: “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s”. And I think that’s how I’ve always made art.” In a Facebook statement in 2013 regarding his relationship with Christianity, Barker states, “Like Blake, I’ll read the Holy Books with my own eyes and make up my own mind about what use I have for them, if any.”

Barker himself is clearly operating within the mythopoeic realm, nowhere more so than in the Abarat books and the epic Imagica. None other than the Blake-influenced William Burroughs described Imagica as “A book… that moves with tidal force and power.

It is a little known fact that Barker was offered the opportunity to write, and possibly direct, Alien 3. And Blake’s influence reaches into this horror/sci-fi franchise, too. For the imposing, alabaster strangeness of the Engineers (the naked ‘space jockeys’) of Prometheus, Ridley Scott was inspired by Blake’s illustrations of the fallen angels for Milton’s Paradise Lost.

And Alien isn’t the only long-running horror franchise to benefit from Blake’s touch. The Hannibal Lecter stories are positively drenched in Blake. In fact, there is an entire book devoted to the topic: Thomas Harris and William Blake: Allusions in the Hannibal Lecter Novels by Michelle Gompf. In Red Dragon (and in both film adaptations and the excellent television series), Blake’s painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun is central to Dolarhyde’s psychosis, so much so that he eventually eats it. And in Hannibal Lecter himself, we can see a life lived in Blakean terms. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, two of the Proverbs of Hell tell us ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’ and ‘The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction’. Furthermore, Blake’s insistence that Good and Evil are interdependent and thus ‘necessary to Human existence’ is consistent with Harris’s treatment of the same subject.

But let’s return to Blake himself and the horror inherent in his poetry, and the ultimate (even, might I suggest, cosmic) horror of The Tyger. Before that, a brief interlude; an Alien-esque snippet from The Book of Ahania:

(Aside from the Alien vibes, there’s more than a little of Clive Barker’s short story, The Skins of the Fathers here.)

So, what of The Tyger? Over-familiarity has rendered the horror of that particular poem largely inert. But the eponymous creature prowling through those verses is truly terrifying, and to understand why we need to look at a much smaller beast: the flea. Or, more accurately, the Ghost of a Flea.

The Ghost of a Flea is a miniature painting by Blake of a creature that ‘came to him’ at least twice in his lifetime. Once in 1790, stalking downstairs towards him in his house in Lambeth, and once at a séance in 1819. The creature Blake captured, first in pencil and later in tempera, looks nothing like the tiny creature with which we’re familiar. The thing is both humanoid and reptilian, and threateningly muscular. It has batwing-like ears, each tapering to an almost thorny point. Its upper vertebrae are pronounced or even exposed in a positively Barkerian fashion. A serpent’s tongue flicks from its open mouth in the direction of a bowl of blood gripped in a claw-like hand. It is walking across a curtained stage, beyond which: space and stars.

william blake's the ghost of a flea
The Ghost of a Flea c.1819-20

In much of Blake’s work, the notion of the Mundane and the Eternal is explored. The mundane world is that which we experience through the five senses, according to Blake “the chief inlets of Soul in this age”. The mundane world appears limited and small. Beyond the mundane world is the Eternal, accessible through the imagination. There are mundane things and there are their Eternal counterparts. In our Fallen state, limited by our five sense, we experience the flea as a tiny speck of a thing. But the Eternal Flea is vampiric, demonic. It strides across the cosmos as an actor struts across a stage. The Eternal Flea is monstrous.

Imagine now, the Eternal Tyger. If the Eternal Flea is this hellish being, what must the Eternal counterpart of one of Earth’s most fearsome apex predators look like, be like? The poem is threaded with disbelief that God could have dared to create such a thing; the very word ‘dare’ is repeated like a drumbeat throughout the poem.

Imagine, something so horrifying that God had to steel Himself before beginning his work.

The ultimate horror. Courtesy of William Blake.

Picture of Michael Sellars

Michael Sellars

Michael Sellars is the author of Hyenas (“Genuinely frightening… exhilarating” Kirkus Reviews), the cosmic horror novella Things Not Made and the short story collection, Heartfelt Horrors. Another cosmic horror novella, Percipience, is doing the rounds of publishers and he is currently editing his second novel, Susurrus. He also curates @HorrorPaperback over on Twitter.

He was born in Oldham, raised in Liverpool by Mancunians, and identifies as ‘Northern’.

Photo by Noitu Love on Unsplash

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